Are boys innately better at math and science?
The question has generated heated debate for decades, with some researchers theorizing that differences in brain activity and hormones give males a mathematical edge from the start.
But new first-of-its-kind research spying on the brains of children while they do math may say otherwise.
“There has been a lot of lore around the potential of boys and girls, but it really hadn’t been tested at the neurobiological level,” says Jessica Cantlon, PhD, a professor of developmental neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “We’re finding that the science doesn’t align with the folk beliefs.”
For one recent study, Cantlon used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brain activity of 104 children, ages 3 to 10, while they watched educational videos and did math problems. When they compared which brain regions lit up, how much, and in what patterns, they found no statistical differences between boys and girls. And when they assessed the children’s level of brain maturity, specifically in areas associated with math, boys and girls were similar.
In a previous study of 500 children ages 6 months to 8 years, Cantlon found that even in infancy boys and girls were equally interested in concepts involving numbers, and there were no substantive gender differences in older children’s ability to count or understand school-based math concepts.
Yet as early as third grade, previous research shows, a gender gap begins to emerge. By high school, boys generally score higher on math in standardized tests, although not by much. By college age, only about a third of female students in the United States pursue degrees in math and science, and by the time they reach the workforce, men outnumber women in the sciences 4 to 1.
“It raises this question of: If boys and girls start out with similar behaviors and similar brain mechanisms, what is leading them to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees at such different rates later in life?” she asks. “The arrows are pointing to social factors.”
Where Parents and Teachers Come In
Numerous studies have shown that boys and girls are treated differently at home and in the classroom when it comes to math and science.
“The perception is so strong that science and math is for boys that it gets passed on through our culture,” says Jo Boaler, PhD, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University in California.
One 2015 study showed parents spend significantly more time playing with blocks, puzzles, and other “building toys” with boys, fostering important “spatial reasoning ability” that is key for success in the STEM fields. Other studies show teachers spend more time explaining math and science concepts to boys in the classroom. And one recent study found even today teachers tend to grade boys higher in math class and steer them toward harder classes.
Meanwhile, other studies have found that the way a mother recalls her own math experience can have a significant impact on a daughter’s attitudes about math, Boaler says.
“When mothers say to daughters, ‘I was never good at math,’ their achievement goes down.”
Pop culture, and some notable public statements, have helped perpetuate the idea that girls are bad at math.
When Mattel first rolled out its Teen Talk Barbie in 1992 it was programmed to utter the phrase, “Math class is tough.” Thirteen years later, Harvard’s then-President Lawrence Summers contended at a conference that differences in “intrinsic aptitude” were to blame for the gender gap in science. And in 2018, a famous Italian physicist stood before a room full of scientists at a conference and declared that “physics was invented and built by men.”
Even today, according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum, fewer than 12% of on-screen characters with identifiable science-related jobs are women. And if you ask a little girl to draw a mathematician, she’s significantly more likely to draw a man than a woman.
Some progress has been made.
For instance, Mattel recently rolled out a new line of STEM-related Barbies, including a robotics engineer, an astronaut, and a computer programmer.
And numerous programs have sprung up to boost girls’ involvement in science.
Boaler, who founded youcubed.org to do just that, says while she rejects the idea that boys are born with a head start in math, males and females do learn differently, with girls doing better when they can see the broader impact of what they are learning, or when they can learn in the absence of boys.
“In mixed classes, girls often can get inhibited,” she said. “They feel like their ideas are not being heard.”
For Cantlon, the Carnegie Mellon professor, just recognizing our own stereotypes can be a great step forward.
“Even the most well-meaning of us have gender biases that we have inherited over time,” she says. “Being aware of those and how we interact with boys and girls differently around intellection subjects is really important.”
To engage girls in science and math Jo Boaler, PhD, professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University in California, recommends the following:
1. Resist Stereotypes of Girl Toys and Boy Toys
The new STEM-themed Barbie series is great, but math- and science-themed toys and games are also great for girls.
2. Develop Spatial Awareness
Play with blocks, puzzles, and other building toys that can develop this skill, necessary for work in the sciences.
3. Be With Girls
Consider an all-girl camp for your daughter. Some research suggests that when boys are not around, girls feel more confident exploring math and science.
4. Be Positive
Avoid negative talk about your own experiences with math. Research shows if you express that you hated it or were no good at it, it rubs off.
By the Numbers
24%. Percentage of jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in the United States that were held by women in 2015, the most recent year of data available. That number has remained flat since 2009.
36%. Percentage of science-related undergraduate degrees awarded to females in the U.S. in 2016.
12%. Percentage of scientists played in U.S. movies who are women.
2x. Twice as many males as females score in the top 5% on standardized high school math tests.
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